I first met Tony King in Poinsettia Park in Hollywood, where I played basketball. I had been out of town for a while and when I went to the park to get into a game, I discovered that the park had become mostly black. I hung around and when the game was over I walked in and called, ‘next,’ the traditional way to get a team together and play the ‘next’ game. It’s a place where you play until you lose.
Tony was on the winning team and when I made my announcement he came over to me, looked me in the eye, and said:
‘This is OUR park.’
‘This isn’t your park, it’s a park and I got next.’
We stared each other down and eventually I got a team together. I tried to play there as much as possible when I was in town and Tony and I were always antagonistic. He was a terrific athlete, having played NFL Football for the Buffalo Bills.
Surprisingly, Tony showed up for an audition for a Bud Light football commercial I was doing. I hadn’t known he was an actor. He sees me:
‘You ain’t gonna let that park shit…’
I cut him off.
‘The park’s the park. This ain’t the park.’
I use him in a small role in the spot together with Tody Smith, Bubba Smith’s younger brother. We all became friends for different reasons. Although Tony’s part was small we had improvised a few things that didn’t make the cut and I was taken by the depth of his eyes that seemed to see things in an honest manner.
I’m not sure of the chronology but I tried to use him in as much stuff as possible because of his honest look. It was always a tough sell because he also looked intimidating.
Budweiser had me doing a commercial with a black hero, for the first time, a major league umpire. I didn’t even want to cast, just use Tony, but the agency insisted on a session and selected a weak-looking black guy with a beard. I still tried to fight for Tony but they were insistent. Since baseball umpires weren’t allowed facial hair, the selected actor had to shave and he lost any interesting features he may have had but the agency still insisted on hm.
I flew to St. Louis for a pre production meeting and the ad guys looked smug. I presented the cast and turned to the AB Ad Manager, Tom Sharbaugh. He had a nervous smile and was twiddling his thumbs.
‘What do you think?’
‘Does he make your heart pound?’
‘Does he have charisma?’
‘I can’t see it, but I trust you. You’ve done great work for us in the past.’
‘You trust me? If you trust me, take a look at this.’
I put Tony’s audition into the tapedeck and look at Tom’s reaction. His face lights up.
‘I was just testing you. This is the guy. The first guy was predictable. Tony looks like the precedent setting guy you want.’
The deal was done and after Tom left, I expected the agency guys to attack. They sheepishly left the room muttering things like they wanted Tony all along.
The spot is referenced to this day.
Bill Heater had written a script about a retiring football player based on the Steelers’ Jack Lambert’s retirement. We had a conflict in casting. Bill wanted a white guy, his partner Don Easdon wanted a weak-looking black guy and I wanted Tony. We argued a great deal. It came to and the producer Mary Ellen Argentieri saved the day by voting for Tony. She later said that she felt the spot would be better if I had my choice. I think we were shooting the next day and Bill gave me a re-written script and I was shocked.
‘When did you write this?’
‘Last night and a little this morning.’
‘You captured him perfectly. How did you do that?’
‘I listened to you two talking before the audition.’
When Tony got the script, he came to me, excited.
‘Joe, this is me!’
‘Yep, it’s you.’
Tony did a fabulous job and the spot was part of a series that got the Grand Prix at Cannes.
I feel badly about another time. It was an AT&T spot and I compromised and used the weaker guy that the client wanted. When the spot was cut I saw the hole in that part, so I reshot the scene at my expense with Tony. Thankfully, they ‘saw the light.’
Tony became radicalized and became one of Louis Farrakhan’s bodyguards. We spoke many times about Farrakhan’s philosophies and I won’t bore you with those details except to say that the public’s perception has been twisted by the press. Muhammad Ali also suffered from press persecution and misunderstanding as did Michael Jackson.
Ali is now revered as a hero and the charges against Michael have all been proven false. If you read the contemporaneous press about those ‘issues’ you laugh out loud, now that the truth has been established.
The issues against Tony were a form of subtle racism, perhaps because of the truth in his eyes, eyes that saw right through you all the way to Africa and the slave ships. Tony represented an elegant power and truth. He was superior to you and he threatened you in many ways.
Racism is still a horrendous element in our society and it’s evidenced in myriad ways, the press against Michael Jackson, the press and public against O. J., despite his acquittal, the murders of the various leaders of any black movement, the illegal actions against Ali. It’s interesting to see the interviews by the avowed racist William F. Buckley (opposed to the Civil Rights Movement) and Ali. Ali is articulate and witty while Buckley is surly and insulting. The whites asking questions are rude and insulting and Ali hands them their asses. This was in the period when Ali’s title was taken away (mentioned earlier) illegally. As far as racial equality goes, Paul Beatty wrote, ‘The only advantage to the Civil Rights Movement seems to be that black people aren’t as afraid of dogs as they used to be.’
Tony is now Malik Farrakhan, a member of the Nation of Islam. He gave up his ‘slave name’ (as did Cassius Clay and Lew Alcindor). I asked him why he named his son, Chad, as it’s a waspy name. Malik told me he’s named after Chad, the African country.
Most commercials still portray black men in a bad light. I’ve had many run-ins with clients because of that and I’ve lost clients because of that. McDonald’s and IBM have been progressive, though, but there aren’t that many enlightened agencies out there and it doesn’t look like it’s going to change anytime soon.
God bless America.